Name of the Worldby Denis Johnson
The acclaimed author of Jesus' Son and Already Dead returns with a beautiful, haunting, and darkly comic novel. The Name of the World is a mesmerizing portrait of a professor at a small Midwestern college who has been patient in his grief after an accident takes the lives of his wife and child, and has permitted that grief to enlarge him. Here is a tour de force by… See more details below
The acclaimed author of Jesus' Son and Already Dead returns with a beautiful, haunting, and darkly comic novel. The Name of the World is a mesmerizing portrait of a professor at a small Midwestern college who has been patient in his grief after an accident takes the lives of his wife and child, and has permitted that grief to enlarge him. Here is a tour de force by one of the most astonishing writers at work today.
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The Name of the World
Since my early teens I've associated everything to do with college, the "academic life," with certain images borne toward me, I suppose, from the TV screen, in particular from the films of the 1930s they used to broadcast relentlessly when I was a boy, and especially from a single scene: Fresh-faced young people come in from an autumn night to stand around the fireplace in the home of a beloved professor. I smell the bonfire smoke in their clothes and the professor's aromatic pipe tobacco, and I feel the general, unquestioned sweetness of youth, of autumn, of college the sweetness of this life. Not that I was ever in love with this dream, or even particularly drawn to it. It's just that I concluded it existed somewhere. My own undergraduate career stretched over six or seven years, interrupted by bouts of work and transfers to a second and then a third institution, and I remember it all as a succession of requirements and endorsements. I didn't attend the football games. I don't remember coming across any bonfires. By several of my teachers I was impressed, even awed, and their influence shaped me as much as anything else along the way, but I never had a look inside any of their homes. All this by way of saying it came as a surprise, the gratitude with which I accepted an invitation to teach at a university.
When the chance came along, I was nearly fifty. After college I'd taught high school for better than a decade, earning postgraduate credits in the summers. One day I wrote a letter to a presidential candidate, advising him on policy and strategy (this was Senator Thomas Thom of Oklahoma; hefaded early in the primaries), and although I'd had no idea people who wrote such letters were ever heeded, much less hired, in a blink I went from Mr. Reed the Social Studies person to Mike Reed the speechwriter, staff floater, and cloakroom confidant, and spent nearly twelve years in Washington. I quit just after Senator Thom began his fifth term. I took the job at the University when my book idea was turned down I'd offered to witness to power's corrupting influence, but apparently no such witness was required.
Then I found myself in the Comparative Studies wing of the Humanities Building, although I was actually an Adjunct Associate Professor of History. (The Humanities Department was long ago dissolved to form more departments, bigger departments; the old building houses budgetary mavericks, grant-sponsored programs and the like, experiments that live out their funding periods and fade away. Somehow this became the home of History.) I ran small seminars, asking bright, undirected students to read books I'd already read and then listening while they presented papers to the rest of the group for criticism. In other words, I didn't do anything. This would have interfered not at all with a glorious future in that place, but I didn't bother with the other side of business there, either, the meetings and the memos and so on.
Four renewals was about the limit for my type of appointment, and I was near the end of my third. After next year, they'd move me along. Meanwhile, I was on vacation.
But people in positions like mine have to keep alert for new ones, and so I found myself one evening dining in a group of eleven at the home of Ted MacKey, Chairman of the School of Music. The surroundings came close to the 1930s moving picture of this life: the snowflakes coming down outside in a college-town night that threatened to add to itself the jingling of sleigh bells and the songs of young carolers, while inside the house, lodge-like in its dimensions, we all drank hot buttered rum around a warm blaze that sent a changing light under the lustrous mantel and onto windows of leaded glass, and onto a black antique telescope and a monstrous beige globe I would have bet presented the world as it had been long ago, but would never be again. We drank hot buttered rum in the atmosphere, in other words, of a very expensive gift shop. It oppressed me. It oppressed me although I'd been given my supper in plenty of homes exactly like it at other universities and in Washington, and I'd even eaten here at Ted MacKey's, two winters previous. It oppressed me for that thought as much as any other, maybe, the mental image of a thousand such dwellings pressed window to window across the wide undifferentiated air of a plunging chasm, and me with a spoon and a bowl and a smile in every one of them.
The dinner that night honored a distinguished visitor to our campus, the Israeli composer Izaak Andropov. As it happened, he'd taken a fever, and didn't attend.
I was here to make a new acquaintance, the head of a University fiefdom called the Forum for Interpretive Scholarship. The Forum had money. They had Associate-level jobs. They had offices, salaries, everything. Best of all they had no duties, no classes. Or so Ted MacKey had promised me, letting out this information in a casual way, as if I might not be looking around for another slot someplace the year after next. This happened all the time, that is, people I hardly knew often suggested, one way or another, that they'd like to help me. I was the object of much goodwill, in fact, sometimes because the man I'd worked for in Washington was disliked, and I'd quit him; or, conversely, because he was liked, and I'd worked for him. In any case, here was a chance to stretch out my vacation another academic year or two. Nothing ever happened at the Forum beyond an occasional presentation by one of the scholars, most of them emeriti from Big Ten universities and such, who just dragged out the lectures they'd been dragging out this...The Name of the World
A Novel. Copyright © by Denis Johnson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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